Ryan Lizza’s “Left” and the Narrow Spectrum of U.S. Political Culture

You know you are living in a totalitarian political culture when a respected mainstream journalist at the center of that culture tells you that a politician whose consistent career theme is personal accommodation to existing power relationships is an ideological leftist.

In a recent well-crafted New Yorker essay on Barack Obama’s early political career in Chicago and Illinois, Ryan Lizza makes an accurate observation. “Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama,” Lizza writes, “is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them.” Later in the same essay Lizza notes that Obama is "an incrementalist.”

Near the end of his article, however, Lizza proclaims that “He [Obama] is ideologically a man of the left” [1].

Those of us who have yet to swallow Orwellian Kool Aid and do not believe that 2 + 2 equals 5 are left to guess what could be going on in Lizza’s mind here. 

How can an “eager” power-accommodator and "incrementalist" be “a man of the ideological left?” The actual historical Left since Gerrard Winstanley and before and through Marx and Bakunin and Rosa Luxembourg and up through the present is about radical-democratic structural and institutional transformation and leveling.  It’s about revolution.

Perhaps Lizza wants us to believe that the radically centrist Obama’s conservative track record — a history of compromise, cunning, caution, and conciliation that I have detailed at some length in my next book and in a recent ZNet essay on Obama’s pre-Rock Star career [2] — is just a game he is playing so that he can get past the corporate gatekeepers and seize presidential power to advance a radical agenda. That’s actually the line being advanced on Obama by a fair part of the Republican right- wing noise machine.  Obama, these arch-reactionary crackpots actually claim, is a socialist or some other kind of left radical. 

This is totally absurd, of course and completely contrary to Obama’s bourgeois socialization and education (e.g. Harvard Law) and his emergence as a corporate-funded super-candidate (“Obama, Inc.”) sponsored by Exelon, UBS, Goldman Sachs, and the like.

Maybe Lizza means that Obama draws a line between his privately held beliefs (supposedly “left”) and his public political behavior.  That is a dubious notion that would seem to hold no substantive public meaning even if it happened to be true, which seems highly unlikely.

I don’t think Lizza (who seems like a fairly bright fellow) is stupid enough to join the Fatherland (FOX) News nut-jobs in believing that the “deeply conservative” (according Larissa MacFarquahar in a careful portrait in the The New Yorker last year [3]) Obama is a stealth radical waiting to leap out of a left-wing closet in the White House.

The best explanation for Lizza’s description of Obama as a leftist is that the spectrum of acceptable debate and difference in the dominant U,S, money-saturated and corporate-managed political culture [4] has narrowed so far that anyone who doesn’t advocate a full-blown radically regressive and extremist, hyper-militaristic agenda – including things like the rapid privatization of Social Security, the invasion of Iran, and the starting of a new Cold War with Russia – is now considered “left" by respectable intellectuals. As far as Lizza, his editors, and many other coordinator-class ilk are concerned, the left that calls for radical structural change (advocated even by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, from 1966 on) has been permanently consigned to the lunatic fringe. It deserves the same consideration one gives to a babbling old uncle in a mental hospital. It no longer exists.

There is no meaningful conflict worth discussing anymore about core questions of class inequality, racism (deeply understood), Superpower dominance/Empire, national narcissism (“American exceptionalism”), state repression, corporate rule and the basic underlying struggle between capitalism and democracy.  Only fanatics and imbeciles concern themselves with such “over” questions in an era that has transcended (that sort of) history.

The “mainstream” political class’s definition of acceptable debate has moved so far right that people like Hillary Clinton and her ideological brother Barack Obama (actually to Clinton’s starboard side on domestic policy) are people of "the left." So what if they fund and defend the criminal and mass-murderous petro-colonial occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, refuse to advance single-payer health insurance, and denounce Venezuela for daring to question to the rule of regressive U.S.-led neoliberalism?  So what if Obama calls for handing over domestic social welfare programs to the Holly Rollers?  So what if he votes to limit civil damages consumers can win from corporations and flip-flops rightward on unconstitutional federal wiretapping and grants retroactive immunity for illegal snooping to the telecommunications giants? So what if Obama’s “war cabinet” will certainly give a top post to Randy Beers, who helped draft Plan Columbia, which spends billions of U.S. dollars on the enlistment of death squads to defeat “Marxist rebels?” So what if Obama praises Ronald Reagan for rescuing America from the supposed “excesses of the 1960s” (things like feminism, Black Power, and popular resistance to the U.S.-imposed “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” [Noam Chomsky])and applauds George Bush Senior’s conduct of the first Persian Gulf War, when the U.S. slaughtered untold thousands of surrendered Iraqi soldiers on the “Highway of Death” and released Saddam’s forces to slaughter Shiites and Kurds the White House had initially encouraged to rebel?  So what if…[fill in the blank:  the list of Obama’s rightward moves and statements gets longer with each day].

In the American "one-and-a-half party system,” what used to be center is now “left” and what used to be hard right is now the center. A leading presidential candidate can simultaneously embrace the ideologies of U.S. capitalism and Empire – as Obama has repeatedly gone to grotesque extremes to do [5] – and be a “man of the ideological left.” War is Peace. Love is Hate.  And 2 + 2 = 5. 

Fine, but here’s the problem. The human species cannot survive much longer in a decent or desirable form without precisely the sort of "anti-establishment revolutionary" change that the “left” Obama has consistently opposed. Reforms will not suffice. “Incrementalism” won’t do the job at this stage. The severe ecological and socioeconomic difficulties plaguing humanity require a broadening of the U.S. moral, ideological and policy spectrum far beyond the allegedly (superficially) post-ideological “get things done” pragmatism of Obama and his team. Capitalist economy, society and politics (the last is the “shadow cast on society by big business,” as John Dewey noted nearly a century ago) are diametrically opposed to ecological survival, social justice, peace, and democracy.

We have to let the radical anti-capitalists and our own suppressed anti-capitalist human nature out of the asylum or we will die (or might as well die). It’s democratic and participatory anti- and post-capitalism or barbarism if we’re lucky. Humanity will abolish the profits system and construct a radically democratic new planned, participatory, egalitarian, and sustainable social order…or it will perish in relatively short historical order. 

It’s not my fault that reality is left-anarchist.


Paul Street ([email protected]) is a veteran radical historian and independent author, activist, researcher, and journalist in Iowa City, IA.  He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm 2005); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge 2005): and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefied 2007).  Hs next book is Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics: www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987



1. Ryan Lizza, “Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama,” The New Yorker, (July 21, 2008).

2.  Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); “Statehouse Days: The Myth of Barack Obama’s ‘True Progressive’ Past,” ZNet (July 20, 2008), read at http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/18224.

3. Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?,” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007).

4. Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

5. For details and sources, see my following articles: “Obama’s Audacious Deference to Power,” ZNet Magazine (January 24, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=11936; “Imperial Temptations: John Edwards, Barack Obama, and the Myth of Post-World War II United States Benevolence,” ZNet Magazine (May 28, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=12928; “ ‘Angry John’ Edwards v. KumbayObama,” SleptOn Magazine (December 28, 2007), read at www.slepton.com/slepton/viewcontent.pl?id=1234-; “Obama Speaks: ‘Oh Great White Masters, you Just Haven’t Been Asked to Help America,’” Black Agenda Report (December 19, 2008); “The Audacity of Imperial Airbrushing and Why It Matters,” Black Agenda Report (July 9, 2008), read at www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=695&Itemid=1.

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